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Blurred Lines: the UIA Congress in Durban, South Africa

An irrepressible commitment to architecture which bridges divisions and addresses social concerns across the Global South and beyond defined the 2014 UIA congress in Durban

Almost all architects are members of the UIA, but few know what the acronym stands for, let alone the organisation. The Union Internationale des Architectes is like a professional body for professional bodies. Architects are automatically members via their national institute, although the UIA has struggled in recent years to demonstrate its relevance to everyday practice, leaving many architects bemused. Nonetheless, its triennial congress − this year hosted in the South African city of Durban − brings together practitioners, students and academics from across both hemispheres to examine the state of the profession and make plans for its future.

The basic format of the conference is intensely dull, bogged down by the tedious and procedural nature of the many talks. But protocol, committees and heavy academic papers cannot dampen the irrepressible energy of delegates − South African architecture was for years locked out of the wider architectural community under apartheid-era sanctions. That South African architects are now hosts of UIA, an organisation they were once barred from, feels intensely significant, marking 20 years since democracy and firmly grounding the work of the congress in a wider social mission. The crowd at the UIA make the Venice Biennale look as inclusive as the Bullingdon Club. Whoever said architecture was stale, male and pale should have been in Durban - more could be done to engage individuals from deprived communities but the themes and location of the 2014 congress have garnered a more diverse crowd than previous years and everywhere architects of all backgrounds, races, regions and genders are comparing notes, debating their work, critiquing each other.

‘The crowd at the UIA make the Venice Biennale look as inclusive as the Bullingdon Club’

The most interesting conversations happen between and around the official schedule as delegates scurry to and from symposia, but Harvard professor of urban design and Mumbai-based architect Rahul Mehrotra’s keynote speech is electrifying. Addressing many overarching themes of the conference as a whole, he delivers a devastating critique of the failings of neoliberalism in cities ‘bullied by impatient capital’ while explaining how his own architecture addresses social as well as environmental agendas. His offices in Hyderabad for infrastructure giant KMC, for instance, use an irrigated double-skin facade to grow a vertical veil of lush hydroponic gardens. The plants cool the building and beautifully modulate light but they also bring the lowest caste of employee − the gardeners − into the heart of the architecture, giving them status and visibility. For Mehrotra, challenging binary divisions by blurring lines between segregated urban, social and economic groups is a key role of design in the Global South and beyond.

UIA 2014 Durban

Gardeners rub shoulders with executives as they tend the hydroponic vegetation that envelopes Rahul Mehrotra’s project in Hyderabad blurring social boundaries. Photograph: Carol Chen

Entrenched binaries recur throughout the week’s discussions: the developed world versus the developing world, the Global North versus the Global South, informal versus formal settlements and trade. President of the South African Institute of Architects, Sindile Ngonyama, spoke movingly of his experience of Western values imposed over traditional African ones in architecture schools and urban planning − townships after all emerged from a mangled distortion of Ebenezer Howard’s garden cities concept. Similarly Pritzker Prize winner Wang Shu discussed a similar binary of ‘abstract’ architectural ideas trumping ‘real’ ones proclaiming that he ‘hates abstract concepts’ which underpin the Western architectural consensus.

But are all values valuable? Disregarding traditional cultures in an attempt to project your own moral system onto others is a form of cultural violence, but dogmatically refusing any attempt to challenge pre-existing values structures can be equally blinkered. Mehrotra, for example, points out it is critical for public health to confront a culture of public defecation in cities across India, while despite popular support from societies across the globe, the sexist belief that men and women must play different roles in society, should not be meekly tolerated but confronted. How can architects navigate the web of competing values that inform their work without falling into the trap of cultural colonialism?

Magda Mostafa, professor of architecture at the American University in Cairo, argues the only productive way forward is through synthesis and compromise. It is ineffective to charge into a given cultural context armed with supposed solutions but that does not negate a critical engagement with values. In Diyarbakir, Turkey, for example, an NGO hoping to confront a spate of female suicides wanted to establish women’s facilities including treatment centres for domestic abuse. The male-dominated community would have seen the overt arrival of such a facility as an alien assault on their authority, so the NGO instead set up subsidised public launderettes as a way to reach out to local women. Under the cultural cover of the launderette, the NGO was able to reach a wider group of women in an example of architecture as camouflage that works by fostering incremental positive social change.

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Architectural camouflage: this launderette also provides women’s services in Turkey

A huge proportion of the UIA programme was dedicated to a rigorous interrogation of architectural pedagogy. Of course, everyone loves to whinge about education − architecture schools are the political footballs of the industry getting a kicking from all sides − but at the UIA, beyond the elitist context of Russell Groups and Ivy Leagues, the conversation is more urgent and meaningful. European architecture schools have long taken lessons from vernacular sources, from Rwanda to the Rhondda Valley but many accuse the architectural education of Africa and the wider Global South as stuck in a classical straitjacket, a hangover from a colonial era, saturated with the modern masters but disregarding local traditions.

‘At worst these trips are examples of voluntourism − one-off bursts of activity that leave a warm glow for the students and something resembling architecture on the ground but little lasting impact.’

Meanwhile the trope of students from the developed world jetting into less wealthy nations to run design/build studios is becoming increasingly common across many Western architecture courses and made for a hot topic around the congress. At worst these trips are examples of voluntourism − one-off bursts of activity that leave a warm glow for the students and something resembling architecture on the ground but little lasting impact, suffering from a lack of community consultation and cultural understanding.

Even where such schemes are outstanding, run in partnership with local architects, thoroughly engaged with local people and compliant with regional legal codes, they are often criticised. Rwandan-based architect Tomà Berlanda calls such design/build projects a form of neocolonialism where privileged but unqualified Westerners take advantage of the poor to get experiences they could not obtain in their own countries. But gradually architecture schools in the Global South are changing the story, establishing their own schemes which are learning from the failings of Western models.

‘Architecture in the West is over. Economies stagnate while governments tighten borders and devalue artistic culture.’

Lesley Lokko, professor of architecture at the University of Johannesburg, argues ‘Africa is suddenly “hot”. Global interest in what is or could happen in Africa has never been greater.’ The popular narrative in the West is indeed rapidly changing. Very few still think of Africa as the homogeneous famine and poverty-struck continent Bob Geldof and certain international aid agencies continue to portray. More likely you’ll hear of Africa’s expanding economies, hugely influential cultural scenes and vast resource wealth. Meanwhile, the largely unspoken truth is that architecture in the West is over. Economies stagnate while governments tighten borders and devalue artistic culture. Young architects emerge blinking from school into the real world facing a debt-filled slog under the heel of large practice. Even outstanding architects who go it alone spend many years unable to be taken seriously or land significant commissions in a climate unwilling to take a risk on an emerging practice. By contrast, the congress is packed with architects barely in their 30s with projects of impressive scale under their belts. Johannesburg architect Thomas Chapman for example, turned 30 the week of the UIA but his practice, Local Studio, are building accomplished schools, community centres and urban schemes − opportunities his peers in Western Europe might be lucky to see by their 40s. How long will it be before canny graduates from the Global North begin to flock south? While the Western architect’s role is now often little more than formal tinkering, the Global South’s acute social needs and extreme juxtapositions enhance the transformative potential of design, making practice more urgent, more meaningful and ultimately more exciting.

The congress concludes with a message from Nobel Prize winner and anti-apartheid activist Desmond Tutu. Appealing to the audience’s sense of international justice, he urges the UIA to introduce similar sanctions as were deployed against apartheid, this time targeting the ongoing military occupation of Palestine, by suspending the Israeli architects from membership just as South African architects were banned 20 years previously. The RIBA proposed a similar course of action in March this year, but it was rejected by UIA president Albert Dubler, who claimed the move was ‘beyond its political scope’. After a congress defined by compassion, ethics and a vision of architecture as a social agent of change, perhaps this time the UIA will take action. 

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